The opera, Carmen, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkMNOlYcpHg&index=2&list=PLEC422D53B7588DC7
, was composed 1873-74 and premiered 3 March 1875 at the Opéra-Comique, Paris. Sometime after the composer’s death on 3 June of that year, Ernest Guiraud derived two suites from the opera, published 1882/1887. The Suites combined call for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, triangle, tambourine, cymbals, harp, and strings. Duration is about 35 minutes. The SSO last performed both Suites together on 12 October 1991, led by guest conductor David Schripsema; Guy Victor Bordo led Suite No. 1 on 4 February 2001.
Georges Bizet composed several operas, including The Pearl Fishers, before Carmen, but the latter is universally considered his masterpiece and still one of the most popular operas on today’s stages. Sadly, Bizet did not live to see his story of the fatal love between a gypsy woman and a renegade soldier become a worldwide success: the premiere at the Opéra-Comique, just weeks before his untimely death, met with little enthusiasm from either public or critics. The story was considered too sordid for a “family” opera house, and the music—so familiar today even to those who never attend opera—baffled audiences: one critic called it “dull and obscure”; others, incredibly, found it tuneless and steeped in “Wagnerism,” meaning the orchestra was too dominant.
But it did not take long for non-Parisians to recognize the composer’s genius. Peter Tchaikovsky was already “in utter ecstasy” over the piano-vocal score he studied in 1875, and after seeing one of the last performances of the Opéra-Comique run he pronounced Carmen a masterpiece that within about ten years would become “the most popular opera in the world!” He wasn’t far wrong: the Vienna premiere was a great success (Brahms saw it 20 times), and the opera was produced everywhere from New York to St. Petersburg before Paris finally saw it again, in 1883. Meanwhile, for the Vienna production Bizet’s friend Ernest Guiraud had composed music, still often used today, for the spoken-dialogue passages of the opera, and he went on to create two suites of music from the opera for the concert hall.
The Carmen Suite No. 1’s short Prélude introduces the ominous theme that the opera associates with both Carmen and her fate at the hands of her lover Don José. This leads without pause into the Aragonaise: festive yet delicate and sinuous music that opens Act IV (the final act) as crowds arrive for a parade and bullfight. Next, the lyrical Intermezzo (the Prelude to Act III) features ravishing woodwind melodies. The Seguedille that follows is an orchestral arrangement of Carmen’s Act I aria in which she seduces Don José into letting her free and meeting her at her friend Lillas Pastia’s tavern. (She has been arrested for brawling with another woman, and Don José is assigned to take her to jail. A seguidilla is a type of Castilian folksong.) Les dragons d’Alcala (The Dragoons of Alcala) is a jaunty march that forms the opera’s Prelude to Act II; later in the act José is heard singing it offstage as he approaches Pastia’s inn. Les Toréadors is the rousing finale of the suite: in the opera it is actually the very opening music, preceding the fateful Carmen theme, and is heard again at the end of the opera, when the Carmen theme interrupts it even more jarringly. In this number we briefly hear the toreador Escamillo’s song, to be presented more fully in the second suite.
The Carmen Suite No. 2 is derived from vocal numbers of the opera. It starts off with the Marche des contrebandiers (The Smugglers’ March), which is sung at the beginning of Act III, when José has joined Carmen in the mountains where her friends carry on their trade. It is a light march, stealthy yet somehow impertinent. The Habañera is a transcription of Carmen’s famous Act I aria in which she describes love as a wild bird that can never be tamed: “If you don’t love me, I love you; but if I love you, watch out for yourself!” For a complete contrast, the Nocturne is an orchestration of the tender and soaring Act III aria of Michaëla, José’s sweet and chaste former girlfriend, as she fearfully wanders into the mountains with a message for him. Here a solo violin takes over the vocal line. The Chanson du Toréador is Escamillo’s swaggering portrayal of his art, while La Garde Montante is the children’s chorus from the beginning of the opera, where a band of street kids imitate the local troop’s changing of the guard. Finally, Danse Bohême is the gypsy dance that Carmen and her friends perform at Lillas Pastia’s: it starts quietly but builds to a frenzy.
Each of the Carmen Suites contains six numbers. Both suites have been performed and recorded many times.